Treating the Still-open Wound of Contested Arab Homes in Jaffa

Urban planner Tovi Fenster's discovery that her childhood home now belongs to Arabs living nearby underlies a study on transforming houses in conflict areas into 'contact zones.'

Maayan Blech

It all began on Yom Kippur in September 2009. A phone conversation between Tovi Fenster and her mother touched on the period of the family’s immigration from Romania to Israel in 1948, and the house where they lived in Jaffa until the 1960s.

Fenster, a professor in the geography and human environment department at Tel Aviv University, and head of its Planning for the Environment with Communities Lab, came across her house by chance years later on a tour with students as part of an urban-renewal project in the area. Even decades later she remembered the house. She had always known it was formerly an Arab home, but in her family they never spoke about how it had come into their hands.

During that phone call, her mother related for the first time how she and a group of other immigrants were sent by the Jewish Agency to find a home for themselves. They walked among the houses that had been abandoned in Jaffa, which borders on Tel Aviv, and from which Arabs had been forced to flee during the War of Independence. When they found one with the door open, they went in and took up residence there.

Fenster asked her mother why she had never told her this before, and her mother replied that she didn’t feel comfortable with everything that had happened – “that we had taken from them what was theirs.” She added that after all the tribulations the family had experienced until they reached Israel, all they wanted was a home of their own.

Fenster was upset by the discovery that her own personal story reflected a double story of refugeehood and the polarization of Jewish-Palestinian narratives. The fact that she found out about this so late in her life was no less disturbing, evidence in her mind of the efficacy of the repressive mechanism in Israel that has succeeded in causing the history of present-absenteeism in all arenas – in the home, in the youth movement, in the army, in academia and in the discourse of planning – to be forgotten.

Plans for urban renewal, especially in areas of friction in mixed cities, often call for demolishing of buildings – and in a few cases, preserving them. Be that as it may, physical remains of the past are frequently eradicated or disappear beneath the layers of “preservation.”

The encounter with the house and her conversations with her mother sparked the first steps in Fenster’s research into the house at 218 Yefet Street. Archival documents and municipal construction files revealed the date of the house’s construction – 1947 – and the identity of its Palestinian owners. It turned out that today they are renting out the adjacent building, which they also own, while they themselves are living across the street in a compound called Pardes Daka (pardes in Hebrew is "citrus orchard," which is what this area once was).

The house itself is very simple-looking. From the outset its construction was never completed and its owners never lived in it but rather rented it out to tenants. Currently, there is a plan to build a multistory building in its place, as part of a general scheme for urban renewal in the vicinity.

Clashing cultures

The research on the house on Yefet Street is part of a broader study, “The Archaeology of an Address,” which Fenster is currently spearheading with funding from the National Academy of Sciences in Israel. In the framework of her research she has formulated the concept of “the house as a contact zone,” inspired by the idea of "contact zone," coined by Prof. Mary Louise Pratt, a scholar of language and literature at New York University. Thus Pratt defined areas where cultures meet and clash, struggle and mingle, mostly in a situation of asymmetrical power relations. At the same time, such spaces might also spawn dialogue and mutual recognition, when the aim is not a total solution of the struggle but rather transformation of the antagonism into understanding.

In the case of Fenster's house, an initial attempt at dialogue with descendants of the owners of the house in the hope of creating a contact zone did not lead to recognition but rather the opposite: to non-recognition, in the context of the asymmetrical power relations between the sides. At the same time, however, it did produce insight and hope with regard to similar future projects, the researcher notes.

The aim of the study by the PEC lab is to formulate concepts for understanding processes of population changes at the level of the individual home, to formulate research methods, to gather information from sources that are usually classified, and to create contact zones between the original Palestinian owners and those of today – who for the most part are Jewish.

The researchers further propose to examine possibilities of integrating the archaeology of the address into the planning processes used in urban renewal in mixed cities. The hope is that there will be a possibility of obligating the authorities and builders in conflict areas to collect at the outset a human-social preservation file, as is the procedure in physical preservation projects.

This file would be formulated in partnership with all the groups who are part of the specific story, with the aim of transforming the conflict areas into contact areas. In the current political situation and on the backdrop of the asymmetrical balance of power between the two sides – this seems like a distant dream.

Fenster, however, is more optimistic. “We are at the beginning of the project. It isn’t going to happen tomorrow," she says, "but someday it will happen.”

Another step in the process is the translation of the project into a visual and experiential language with the aim of moving it from the ivory tower and into the public domain.

To that end, within the framework of last week's annual “Houses from Within” architectural event in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, research on the house at 218 Yefet Street was presented at the site itself by means of a sight-and-sound installation created by stage designer and director Roni Schlesinger. Together with Prof. Fenster, Schlessinger is pursing a B.A. in the program for outstanding students at the PEC lab.

Visitors were invited to catch a glimpse of the life of the Palestinian and Jewish owners and tenants of the building during different times, via a period exhibit and recorded interviews in Arabic and Hebrew, describing the everyday routine of then from the place of now – testimonies that will hopefully survive even after the house itself ceases to exist. Perhaps one day they will become a bridge – a post-colonial bridge, if one is to resort to jargon – over the abysses of the narrative.